OMG, Richard Is Retiring!!!

OMG, Richard Is Retiring!!!

Dear Pongo Community,

I have some news to share that is happy and celebratory, but I’ll try not to go on about it too much. There is too much suffering now from the COVID-19 crisis.

On July 1st I am retiring from Pongo after 25 years, with a full heart and much love. I am proud to have founded Pongo, developed our trauma-informed methodology, and led our programs that served 7,000 incarcerated, homeless, and hospitalized youth and adults. I know, however, that Pongo’s accomplishments are the product of the work, support, and encouragement of the Pongo community. The rationale for my retirement is simply this – It’s time. This summer when Pongo turns 25, I turn 72. I need the space to create my own healing poetry, to spend time with my family, to teach, and to write another book about Pongo. My retirement is a long-planned move. I discussed my intention with Pongo’s board three years ago, and officially resigned one year ago.

As I step back from Pongo, my strongest feeling is gratitude. I am honored that people have shared their important and difficult stories with me. These stories have changed me. Children have talked in detail about their abuse and included, through their tears, expressions of love and hope. Over time I have become more aware, more sensitive, more open, and much more the person I aspired to be.

The lessons of Pongo are deep and broad. Every person we work with, without regard to their debilitating histories or the stigma of their current circumstances, will speak openly and with insight, revealing their truest and most capable selves. Pongo’s writers, once they are encouraged to express themselves, are significant artists and important contributors to the social discourse. The only secret to this success is that people need to feel respected and heard, which is at the heart of Pongo’s poetry process. I’ve learned that our whole social system could be improved if we dedicated ourselves to providing more, and earlier, trauma-informed arts. The most humane and practical course forward is more poetry, fewer jails.

I also want you to know that, as I leave, Pongo has never been stronger. We prepared for my departure with strategic planning last fall. Pongo’s board is beautifully guiding our future and has hired Barbara Green to be Pongo’s Interim Executive Director for about six months. Welcome, Barbara! Barbara has filled this role for 24 years with about 25 organizations, including CASA Latina, Lambert House, and Powerful Voices. She will assist the board in hiring my permanent successor. In addition, Pongo has a terrific staff in Shaun McMichael (Program Manager) and Nebeu Shimeles (Development Manager), as well as a group of creative and inspiring project leaders and mentors, including our beloved veteran of almost 20 years, Ann Teplick. Pongo is proud to be situated in the group of community arts organizations at Washington Hall.

As further evidence of Pongo’s strength, we have

  • Documented our methodology in my book Writing with At-Risk Youth: The Pongo Teen Writing Method (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2014)
  • Given 80 presentations and trainings nationally, at places like Tulane School of Social Work and UCLA’s conference on “Creativity and the Arts in Healing”
  • Received notes from 91 people who have used Pongo techniques, including people in 21 other states and 11 foreign countries, such as El Salvador, South Africa, and Poland
  • Benefited from five pilot studies by psychologists and psychiatrists that demonstrate the remarkable healing benefits of our work
  • Collected our own data, with 1,500 surveys from youth in detention and the state psychiatric hospital for children (over 99% enjoyed writing poetry with us)
  • Accumulated similar surveys from over 25,000 youth who have written healing poetry on our web site

Of course, over the years Pongo and I have had to evolve, too. One area of growth has been our ability to recognize the social justice context of our work. I thank Pongoite Eli Hastings and others in the community who encouraged us. We know that the trauma we address was often cooked in the stew of racial oppression. We have witnessed how people are exposed to, and internalize, prejudice and hate. We have learned and are learning about privilege and the impact of structural inequities on our community.

Personal imperfection is actually a natural bridge to explain the origins of the name “Pongo,” which I almost always forget to do. Pongo is a puppet like Pinocchio, who struggles to become human. In my narrative poetry from 1999, The Odd Puppet Odyssey, Pongo realizes at the end of a very long, difficult, and funny journey that he needs to learn compassion, at least “enough to mitigate his chief quality, even now, awkwardness.” We often struggle with ourselves, including when we have the best intentions. Pongo has not only been a mission for me, but a personal journey.

To you, the Pongo community, thank you for being a companion on this journey. I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that Pongo appreciates you and needs you. I am asking you to continue and increase your commitment and support for Pongo during this time of transition and significant opportunity. Through poetry, we can provide transformative, joyful healing opportunities to trauma sufferers worldwide, in particular to people in marginalized communities. Go Pongo!

I will end this announcement with an invitation. The Pongo Board has asked me to extend my relationship to Pongo in the role of Methodology Guru. I invite you to visit me on that mountain. I will be sitting in front of my cave, meditating in the elements, with wild hair and wilder eyes, yet always ready to share what I am learning in this ongoing process. Please know that my truth to you will ever be “Your words are important and can make a difference in the world – especially the poem in your heart that only you can write.”


New email:

Richard and his wife, Celeste

Follow @pongopoetry on Instagram